O’Brien Coin Guide: Roman Emperors and their Coins, Part III


The Nervan-Antonine Dynasty (96–192)

The Nerva–Antonine dynasty was a dynasty of seven Roman Emperors who ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 AD to 192 AD.  These Emperors were Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus.  They are probably of great interest to fans of the Gladiator movie but the real history differs somewhat from the movie plot.

The first five of the six successions within this dynasty were notable insofar as the reigning Emperor adopted the candidate of his choice to be his successor.  This is somewhat similar to the Brehon Law of ancient Ireland where the “táiniste” was the likely successor – the cause of many civil wars and inter-necine strife.  Under Roman law, an adoption established a bond legally as strong as that of kinship. Because of this, the second through sixth Nerva-Antonine emperors are also called Adoptive Emperors.

The Nervan Dynasty

Nerva  (AD 96-98)

The first of the “Five Good Emperors”, Nerva became Emperor at the age of sixty-five, after a lifetime of imperial service under Nero and the rulers of the Flavian dynasty. Under Nero, he was a member of the imperial entourage and played a vital part in exposing the Pisonian conspiracy of AD 65.

  • As a loyalist to the Flavians, he attained consulships in AD 71 and AD 90 during the reigns of Vespasian and Domitian respectively.
  • When Domitian was assassinated, Nerva was declared emperor by the Roman Senate. This was the first time the Senate elected a Roman Emperor – he vowed to restore liberties which had been curtailed during the autocratic government of Domitian.
  • Nerva’s brief reign was marred by financial difficulties and his inability to assert his authority over the Roman army. A revolt by the Praetorian Guard in October 97 essentially forced him to adopt an heir.
  • Nerva adopted Trajan, a young and popular general, as his successor. Nerva died of natural causes on 27th January, AD 98.
  • Nerva was considered a wise and moderate emperor by ancient historians – his greatest success was his ability to ensure a peaceful transition of power after his death.
Nerva gold Aureus. 96 AD. IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P COS II P P, laureate head of Nerva right / CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, two clasped hands holding aquila set on prow

Nerva gold Aureus. 96 AD. IMP NERVA CAES AVG P M TR P COS II P P, laureate head of Nerva right / CONCORDIA EXERCITVVM, two clasped hands holding aquila set on prow

Nerva silver Denarius. Rome, AD 96. IMP NERVA CAES AVG — P M TR P COS II P P, laureate head right / IVSTITIA AVGVST, Justitia seated right, holding scepter & branch.

Nerva silver Denarius. Rome, AD 96. IMP NERVA CAES AVG — P M TR P COS II P P, laureate head right / IVSTITIA AVGVST, Justitia seated right, holding scepter & branch.

Trajan  (AD 98-117)

Trajan is remembered as a successful soldier-emperor who presided over the greatest military expansion in Roman history, leading the empire to attain its maximum territorial extent by the time of his death.

  • He also saw extensive public building programs and implementing social welfare policies, which earned him his enduring reputation as the second of the Five Good Emperors who presided over an era of peace and prosperity in the Mediterranean world.
    • Trajan’s Forum
    • Trajan’s Market
    • Trajan’s Column
  • He annexed the Nabataean kingdom, creating the province of Arabia Petraea.
  • His conquest of Dacia enriched the empire greatly — the new province possessed many valuable gold mines.
  • His war against the Parthian Empire ended with the sack of the capital Ctesiphon and the annexation of Armenia and Mesopotamia.
  • In late AD 117, while sailing back to Rome, Trajan fell ill and died of a stroke in the city of Selinus.  He was deified by the Senate and his ashes were laid to rest under Trajan’s Column.  He was succeeded by his adopted son Hadrian.
  • Every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (“[be] luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”).
roman coin Trajan gold Aureus 98-99 AD

Trajan gold Aureus. 98-99 AD. IMP CAES NERVA TRAIAN AVG GERM, laureate head right / P M TR P COS II P P, Fortuna standing left holding rudder on prow & cornucopiae

roman coin Trajan silver Denarius. IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P, laureate bust right, draped far shoulder / COS V P P SPQR OPTIMO PRINC, Aequitas seated left holding cornucopiae & scales

Trajan silver Denarius. IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC P M TR P, laureate bust right, draped far shoulder / COS V P P SPQR OPTIMO PRINC, Aequitas seated left holding cornucopiae & scales

roman coin Trajan silver Dupondius. 98-99 AD. IMP CAES NERVA TRAIAN AVG GERM P M, radiate head right / TR POT COS II, SC in ex, Abundancia seated left on chair of two crossed cornucopiae, holding sceptre

Trajan silver Dupondius. 98-99 AD. IMP CAES NERVA TRAIAN AVG GERM P M, radiate head right / TR POT COS II, SC in ex, Abundancia seated left on chair of two crossed cornucopiae, holding sceptre

Hadrian  (AD 117-138)

During his reign, Hadrian traveled to nearly every province of the Roman Empire.  An ardent admirer of Greece, he sought to make Athens the cultural capital of the Empire and ordered the construction of many opulent temples in the city.

  • In Rome, he re-built the Pantheon and constructed the Temple of Venus and Roma.
  • He is also known for building Hadrian’s Wall, marking the northern limit of Roman Britain.
  • He spent extensive amounts of his time with the military; he usually wore military attire and even dined and slept amongst the soldiers.  He ordered military training and drilling to be more rigorous and even made use of false reports of attack to keep the army alert.
  • Upon his accession to the throne, Hadrian withdrew from Trajan’s conquests in Mesopotamia and Armenia, and even considered abandoning Dacia.
  • Late in his reign he suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt in Judaea, renaming the province Syria Palaestina.
  • In AD 138, Hadrian resolved to adopt Antoninus Pius if he would in turn adopt Marcus Aurelius and Aelius’ son Lucius Verus as his own eventual successors.  Antoninus agreed, and soon afterward Hadrian died at Baiae
Hadrian gold Aureus. IMP CAESAR TRAIAN HADRIANVS AVG, laureate draped bust right / P M TR P COS III, Jupiter standing facing with thunderbolt & sceptre

Hadrian gold Aureus. IMP CAESAR TRAIAN HADRIANVS AVG, laureate draped bust right / P M TR P COS III, Jupiter standing facing with thunderbolt & sceptre

Hadrian silver Denarius. ca 120-124 AD. IMP CAESAR TRAIAN HADRIANVS AVG, laureate draped bust right / P M TR P COS III, Minerva, helmeted, aegis falling over back, advancing right, brandishing spear and holding round shield

Hadrian silver Denarius. ca 120-124 AD. IMP CAESAR TRAIAN HADRIANVS AVG, laureate draped bust right / P M TR P COS III, Minerva, helmeted, aegis falling over back, advancing right, brandishing spear and holding round shield

Antoninus Pius  (AD 138-161)

His reign was the most peaceful in the entire history of the Principate; while there were several military disturbances throughout the Empire in his time, in Mauretania, Iudaea, and amongst the Brigantes in Britannia, none of them are considered serious.

  • In Britain that Antoninus decided to follow a new, more aggressive path, with the appointment of a new governor in AD 139, Urbicus who undertook an invasion of southern Scotland, winning some significant victories, and constructing the Antonine Wall from the Firth of Forth to the Clyde, although it was soon abandoned.
  • Antoninus was virtually unique among emperors in that he dealt with these crises without leaving Italy once during his reign, but instead dealt with provincial matters of war and peace through their governors or through imperial letters to the cities – this style of government was highly praised by his contemporaries and by later generations.
Antinonius Pius gold Aureus Obv: IMPTAELCAESHADRANTONINVS - Bare head right. Rev: AVGPIVSPMTRPCOSDESII - Pietas standing left, raising hand over altar

Antinonius Pius gold Aureus
Obv: IMPTAELCAESHADRANTONINVS – Bare head right.
Rev: AVGPIVSPMTRPCOSDESII – Pietas standing left, raising hand over altar

Antoninus Pius silver Denarius 143-144 Rome. Laureate head right ANTONINVS AVG PIVS PP TR P COS III / IMPERATOR II Victoria standing left, holding wreath and palmbranch

Antoninus Pius silver Denarius 143-144 Rome. Laureate head right ANTONINVS AVG PIVS PP TR P COS III / IMPERATOR II Victoria standing left, holding wreath and palmbranch

Marcus Aurelius  (AD 161-180)

After the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus was effectively sole ruler of the Empire – although He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from AD 161 until Verus’ death in AD 169.   It was the first time that Rome was ruled by two emperors.  Marcus and Lucius proved popular with the people of Rome, who strongly approved of their civiliter (“lacking pomp”) behaviour. The emperors permitted free speech, evidenced by the fact that the comedy writer Marullus was able to criticize them without suffering retribution.

  • Upon his accession Marcus devalued the Roman currency, decreasing the silver purity of the denarius from 83.5% to 79% — the silver weight dropping from 2.68 grams to 2.57 grams.
  • In AD 168, he revalued the denarius, increasing the silver purity from 79% to 82% — the actual silver weight increasing from 2.57 grams to 2.67 grams.
  • Two years later Marcus reverted to the previous values because of the military crises facing the empire – he needed coin to pay his troops.

During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East; Aurelius’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the capital Ctesiphon in AD 164.  In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, with the threat of the Germanic tribes beginning to represent a troubling reality for the Empire.  A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately.

  • In the spring of AD 162, the Tiber flooded over its banks, destroying much of Rome and drowned many animals, leaving the city in famine. Marcus and Lucius gave the crisis their personal attention.  In other times of famine, the emperors are said to have provided for the Italian communities out of the Roman granaries.
  • The returning army (Parthian Wars) carried with them a plague, afterwards known as the Antonine Plague, or the Plague of Galen, which spread through the Roman Empire between 165 and 180.  The disease was a pandemic believed to be either of smallpox or measles, and would ultimately claim the lives of two Roman emperors—Lucius Verus, who died in AD 169, and Marcus Aurelius, whose family name, Antoninus, was given to the epidemic.
  • The disease broke out again nine years later, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, and caused up to 2,000 deaths a day at Rome, one-quarter of those infected. Total deaths have been estimated at five million.
  • Marcus gave the succession to his son Commodus, whom he had named Caesar in AD 166 and made co-emperor in AD 177.  This decision, putting an end to the series of “adoptive emperors”, was highly criticized by later historians.
Marcus Aurelius, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 145 AD. AVRELIVS CAESAR AVG PII FIL COS II, bare-headed & draped bust right / HILARITAS, Hilaritas standing facing, head left, holding palm & cornucopiae

Marcus Aurelius, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 145 AD. AVRELIVS CAESAR AVG PII FIL COS II, bare-headed & draped bust right / HILARITAS, Hilaritas standing facing, head left, holding palm & cornucopiae

Marcus Aurelius, as Caesar. Silver Denarius. AVRELIVS CAES-AR AVG PII FIL, bare head right / TR POT VIII COS II, Genius or Virtus standing left with legionary eagle & sacrificing out of patera over lighted altar

Marcus Aurelius, as Caesar. Silver Denarius. AVRELIVS CAES-AR AVG PII FIL, bare head right / TR POT VIII COS II, Genius or Virtus standing left with legionary eagle & sacrificing out of patera over lighted altar

The Antonine Dynasty

Lucius Verus  (AD 161-169)

He ruled with Marcus Aurelius as co-emperor from 161 until his own death in 169, albeit in a slightly more junior capacity.  During the short reign of Lucius Verus, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East; Verus’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the Parthian capital Ctesiphon in 164.

  • In the spring of AD 168 war broke out in the Danubian border when the Marcomanni invaded the Roman territory.  Later in that year, as Verus and Marcus Aurelius returned to Rome from the field, Verus fell ill with symptoms attributed to food poisoning, dying after a few days (AD 169). Modern scholars believe that Verus may have been a victim of smallpox, as he died during a widespread epidemic known as the Antonine Plague.
  • Despite the minor differences between them, Marcus Aurelius grieved the loss of his adoptive brother.  He accompanied the body to Rome, where he offered games to honour his memory.  After the funeral, the senate declared Verus divine to be worshipped as Divus Verus.
Lucius Verus gold aureus. 164 AD. L VERVS AVG ARMENIACVS, bare head right / REX ARMEN DAT TR P IIII IMP II COS II, Verus, flanked by lictor shouldering fasces & another standing attendant, seated left on camp chair on platform, extending his right hand to crown Armenian king who stands left before platform, raising his right hand to guide the crown onto his head

Lucius Verus gold aureus. 164 AD. L VERVS AVG ARMENIACVS, bare head right / REX ARMEN DAT TR P IIII IMP II COS II, Verus, flanked by lictor shouldering fasces & another standing attendant, seated left on camp chair on platform, extending his right hand to crown Armenian king who stands left before platform, raising his right hand to guide the crown onto his head

Lucius Verus silver Denarius. L VERVS AVG PARTH MAX, laureate head right / TR P VI IMP IIII COS II, PAX in ex, Pax standing left holding olive-branch and cornucopiae

Lucius Verus silver Denarius. L VERVS AVG PARTH MAX, laureate head right / TR P VI IMP IIII COS II, PAX in ex, Pax standing left holding olive-branch and cornucopiae

Commodus  (AD 180-192)

Commodus has been described as “more savage than Domitian, more foul than Nero” by the scribes and certainly gained few admirers in tow Hollywood blockbuster movies – in both cases he was named as emperor despite his father wanting a general to succeed him.

The truth is somewhat different to the movie plots :-

  • Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus Augustus was Roman Emperor from AD 180 to AD 192 and also ruled as co-emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until his father’s death in 180.
  • His accession as emperor was the first time a son had succeeded his father since Titus succeeded Vespasian in 79.
  • He was also the first emperor to have both a father and grandfather (who had adopted his father) as the two preceding emperors. Commodus was the first (and until 337 the only) emperor “born in the purple”, i.e., during his father’s reign.

On 1 January, AD 177 Commodus became consul for the first time, which at 15 years old, made him the youngest consul in Roman history up to that time. He accompanied his father to the Danubian front once more in AD 178, where Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March, AD 180, leaving the 18-year-old Commodus sole emperor.

  • Upon his accession Commodus devalued the Roman currency.
    • He reduced the weight of the denarius from 96 per Roman pound to 105 (3.85 grams to 3.35 grams).
    • He also reduced the silver purity from 79 percent to 76 percent – the silver weight dropping from 2.57 grams to 2.34 grams.
    • In AD 186 he further reduced the purity and silver weight to 74 percent and 2.22 grams respectively, being 108 to the Roman pound.
    • His reduction of the denarius during his rule was the largest since the empire’s first devaluation during Nero’s reign.

Commodus quickly earned a reputation for megalomania and pronounced himself as a source of god-like power, liberality and physical prowess.  He had statues of himself raised around the empire – portraying him in the guise of Hercules, reinforcing the image of him as a demigod, a physical giant, a protector and a battler against beasts and men.  Moreover, as Hercules, he could claim to be the son of Jupiter, the representative of the supreme god of the Roman pantheon.

  • During AD 191, the city of Rome was extensively damaged by a fire that raged for several days, during which many public buildings including the Temple of Pax, the Temple of Vestaand parts of the imperial palace were destroyed.
  • In AD 192 Commodus declared himself the new Romulus, ritually re-founded Rome, renaming the city Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana. The months of the year were renamed to correspond exactly with his (now twelve) names, thus he presented himself as the fountainhead of the Empire and Roman life and religion.
  • In November AD 192, Commodus held Plebeian Games, in which he shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning, and fought as a gladiator every afternoon, winning all the bouts.
  • For each appearance in the arena, he charged the city of Rome a million sesterces, straining the Roman economy.
    • wounded soldiers were chained in the arena to be killed by Commodus
    • citizens mutilated by accidents were also chained and killed
    • these acts are thought to be the main reason why Commodus became unpopular and targeted for assassination.
  • On 31 December, Commodus was poisoned and strangled.  Upon his death, the Senate declared him a public enemy (a de facto damnatio memoriae) and restored the original name to the city of Rome and its institutions. Commodus’s statues were thrown down.

Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax, whose reign was short lived, being the first to fall victim to the Year of the Five Emperors. Commodus’s death marked the end of the Nerva–Antonine dynasty.

Commodus, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 175-176 AD. COMMODO CAES AVG FIL GERM SARM, bareheaded, draped & cuirassed bust right / SPES PVBLICA, Spes advancing left, holding flower & raising hem of skirt

Commodus, as Caesar, gold Aureus. 175-176 AD. COMMODO CAES AVG FIL GERM SARM, bareheaded, draped & cuirassed bust right / SPES PVBLICA, Spes advancing left, holding flower & raising hem of skirt

Commodus, as Caesar, silver Denarius. 175-176 AD. COMMODO CAES AVG FIL GERM SARM, draped bust right / DE SAR-MATIS, two captives, male and female, seated below trophy

Commodus, as Caesar, silver Denarius. 175-176 AD. COMMODO CAES AVG FIL GERM SARM, draped bust right / DE SAR-MATIS, two captives, male and female, seated below trophy

During the reign of Commodus, a serious revolt erupted in Britain in AD 184, the causes of which are uncertain.

  • The revolt was quickly put down, and a series of coins was struck to commemorate the event.
Commodus. AD 177-192. Æ Sestertius (29mm, 24.14 g, 6h). British victory issue. Rome mint. Struck AD 185. Laureate and draped bust right / VICT BRIT in exergue, Victory seated right on pile of arms, inscribing shield set on knee with long stylus. RIC III 452 var. (not draped); cf. MIR 18, 665-6/30 (not draped, VIC BRIT); Banti 487. Good VF, dark green and brown patina, a few light scratches on reverse in exergue. Extremely rare. During the reign of Commodus, a serious revolt erupted in Britain in AD 184, the causes of which are uncertain. The revolt was quickly put down, and a series of coins was struck to commemorate the event.

Commodus. AD 177-192. Æ Sestertius (29mm, 24.14 g, 6h). British victory issue. Rome mint. Struck AD 185. Laureate and draped bust right / VICT BRIT in exergue, Victory seated right on pile of arms, inscribing shield set on knee with long stylus. RIC III 452 var. (not draped); cf. MIR 18, 665-6/30 (not draped, VIC BRIT); Banti 487. Good VF, dark green and brown patina, a few light scratches on reverse in exergue. Extremely rare.

Part 4 coming soon !

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